Knowing has two poles, and they are always poles apart: carnal knowing, the laying on of hands, the hanging of the fact by head or heels, the measurement of mass and motion, the calibration of brutal blows, the counting of supplies; and spiritual knowing, invisibly felt by the inside self, who is but a fought-over field of distraction, a stage where we recite the monotonous monologue that is our life, a knowing governed by internal tides, by intimations, motives, resolutions, by temptations, secrecy, shame, and pride.
The papers of Gass seemed immaculate, each box like a freshly dug pool. By comparison, the papers of Whitman and Woolf and David Foster Wallace are filled with scraps and sheets that bear the odor from yesterday’s hands. I had already done my due diligence with The Reader, weeks of close reading and margin scribbling through its nine hundred pages; I had read a good portion of the secondary scholarship; and now here was a chance to sight some of Gass’s unresolved thoughts written overleaf.
I began by casually picking over the correspondence—incoming letters and postcards and telegrams. In the sixties, following the publication of his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, there was Susan Sontag dishing up high praise (and slyly complimenting herself in the same stroke), Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books begging again and again for another tipple of his prose (remarkable considering how remote the Midwestern Gass was from the flame of literary New York), and Stanley Elkin prodding “Bill” to leave Indiana for an open philosophy professorship in Saint Louis (the job he would ultimately hold for the rest of his working life). There was also a small scrap of torn notebook paper, a request for an out-of-print edition of a book by Gass—a subtle sort of fan letter written tenderly by a twenty-three-year-old man, now a sexagenarian who presides over the books section of a major American publication. Gass’s silence, the lack of corresponding responses in the archive, was odd, like a refrigerator that stops humming one afternoon. Gass, the ever-voluble (the—how to avoid it—ever-gassy), is a quiet center in the letters, a silhouette whose contours are limned only in the words of others.
I extracted box 66 from a cart and dipped into the late late juvenilia—college essays and his 1954 philosophy dissertation at Cornell—waxen pages that amounted to an incidental encyclopedia of fields, concepts, and fascinations that held sway over Gass’s writing for the next sixty years. The subject of the dissertation, “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” was importantly not a grad-school penance but the idée fixe that Gass fitted on mantels and stashed under rugs and cushions of every story and essay. For Gass, the ultimate metaphor was the relationship between the world and written language. Just as chairs could be moved around a house, words could be arrayed and rearranged in the syntactic space of a sentence—untold combinations of selfsame units, accommodating varieties of mood and meaning.
Gass suggested that literary language, specifically, required an additional metaphor. Proustian prose had a more exalted status than the demotic word-stuff on the back of soup cans. It was not made of chairs; it was conscious. In a riff on Cartesian dualism, Gass argued that a book was a body and a literary text was a conscious mind. When great writers fashioned a world of words, they supplanted the consciousness of the reader with another one, a self-sustaining construction of rich sound and sense, a new mind “musiked deep with feeling.” This conceit, the book as a “container of consciousness,” was a metaphor—Gass wasn’t a paranoid animist—but nonetheless it was a metaphor underwritten by what Gass believed was a genuine ontological shift. From soup can to Proust, words were transmogrified into literature.
Origin of the Brunists is Robert Coover’s first novel. First published in 1966, this long novel tells the story of an apocalyptic religious cult that forms around the sole survivor of a mining accident. The novel begins with the Brunists prepping for the upcoming end of the world (doomsday is scheduled for the weekend). After this somewhat bewildering prologue, the novel shifts back a few months in time, to lay out the cult’s genesis, a fatal mining accident.
Origin of the Brunist’s early chapters are an engrossing and unexpectedly smooth launch into a 500+ page novel. I read the first 70 pages in one night, rapt in the weird world of West Condon, the fictional midwesternish mining town where the Brunist cult originates. I woke up the next morning and continued to read in bed. I was, and am, enthusiastic.
The second chapter of Origin of the Brunists is especially enthralling. Propulsive and engaging, the chapter zooms through the various consciousnesses of West Condon on the night of the novel’s originating disaster, the horrific mining collapse that imperils hundreds of miners. Coover inhabits the voices and minds of his characters with an easy if often grimy grace here. Evocation of consciousness has marked much of Coover’s work, from the early short story “The Brother” (1962) to his recent novel Huck Out West (2017). The man can throw his voice around. Origin of the Brunists overflows with voices. In small snatches of dialog and free-indirect speech, we get an aural and vivid picture of the miners, their children and spouses, as well as the other residents of West Condon.
The mining disaster chapter shuttles along with a filmic quality. Coover intercuts scenes of the miners escaping (or failing to escape) with a highschool basketball game, teenage lust in a parked car, and other odds and ends of West Condon life. The chapter builds in tension, reminding one of the climax of an epic movie, but one wedged unexpectedly at the narrative’s outset.
Indeed, Coover’s contest with film is something of a trademark. A signal example of this style can be found in the stories in his 1987 collection A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This. Stories like “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Lap Dissolves” wrestle with film as a medium, deconstructing author and text, filmmakers and audiences, film reels and book pages. In the Night stories (and elsewhere, always elsewhere), Coover employs a host of metatextual techniques, dissolving one narrative into another, overlapping archetypes and synthesizing tropes, blending fables and history and commercial culture into a critique of American Pop mythology.
Coover’s metafiction always points back at its own origin, its own creation, a move that can at times take on a winking tone, a nudging elbow to the reader’s metaphorical ribs—Hey bub, see what I’m doing here? Coover’s metafictional techniques often lead him and his reader into cartoon landscapes, where postmodernly-plastic characters bounce manically off realistic contours. The best of Coover’s metafictions (like “The Babysitter,” 1969) tease their postmodern plastic into a synthesis of character, plot, and theme. However, in large doses Coover’s metafictions can tax the reader’s patience and will—the simplest example that comes to mind is “The Hat Act” (from Pricksongs & Descants, 1969), a seemingly-interminable Möbius loop that riffs on performance, trickery, and imagination. (And horniness).
I’m dwelling on Coover’s metafictional myth-making because I think of it as his calling card. And yet Origin of the Brunists bears only the faintest traces of Coover’s trademark metafictionalist moves (mostly, so far anyway, by way of its erstwhile hero, the journalist Tiger Miller). Coover’s debut reads rather as a work of highly-detailed, highly-descriptive realism, a realism that pushes its satirical edges up against the absurdity of modern American life. It reminds me very much of William Gass’s first novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and John Barth’s first two novels, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958). (Barth heavily revised both of the novels in 1967). There’s a post-Faulknerian style here, something that can’t rightly be described as modern or postmodern. These novels distort reality without rupturing it in the way that the authors’ later works do. Later works like Barth’s Chimera (1973), Gass’s The Tunnel (1995), and Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) dismantle genre structures and tropes and rebuild them in new forms. (I might contrast here with the first novels of William Gaddis (The Recognitions, 1955), Thomas Pynchon (V., 1963), and Ishmael Reed (The Freelance Pallbearers, 1967), all of which employ postmodern and metafictional techniques right out of the gate—but that’s perhaps appropriate material for another riff).
While Origin of the Brunists doesn’t tip into Coover’s metatextual mode, it points towards his mythic style, but in a subtle, restrained way, as in this description of the moments preceding a high-school basketball game:
A ritual buzzer alerts the young athletes on the West Condon court and strikes a blurred roar from the two confronting masses of spectators. In a body, all stand. The mute patterns of run-pass-leap-thrust dissolve, congealing into two tight knots on either extremity of the court, each governed by a taut-faced dark-suited hierarch. Six young novices in black, breasts ablaze with the mark of their confession, discipline the brute roars into pulsing chants with soft loops of arm and skirt, while, at their backs, five acolytes of the invading persuasion pressed immodestly into sleek diabolic red, rattle talismans with red and white paper tails, seeking to neutralize the efficacy of the West Condon locomotive. Young peddlers circulate, selling condiments indiscriminately to all. A light oil of warm-up perspiration anoints the shoulders of the ten athletes chosen as they explode out of their respective rings to confront each other. Some of them cross themselves, some clap and cry oaths, others tweak their genitals.
These mythical touches are rare in the first section of Origin of the Brunists though. Instead, Coover seems to tease out the West Condoners’ building of their own mythology, one cobbled from the apocalyptic strands of rural American Christianity, a religion divined through signs and wonders.
Such signs have much of their origin in Ely Collins, a miner-cum-preacher who meets his fate in the disaster. In a shocking scene that plays out with frank realism, Collins loses his leg:
“It’s okay, boys,” Collins whispered up at them. “I kin take it.” And he took to praying again.
Strelchuk lifted the ax in the air and thought: Jesus! what if I miss, I’ve never swung a goddamn ax much, what if I hit the wrong leg, or—?
“Goddamn you, Mike!” Jinx screamed, losing control. “Quit messing around! This gas is knocking me out, man! We got to get us out of here!”
And while he was screaming away like that, Strelchuk came down with the ax, caught the leg right where he aimed, true and clean, just below the knee, and the blood flew everywhere, and Juliano was crying like a goddamn baby, and Bruno, his face blood-sprayed, went dumb, mouth agape, and broke away in a silent fit, but the leg was still hooked on, they couldn’t get him free. Preach was still praying to beat hell and never even whimpered. Mike raised the ax again and drove down with all the goddamn strength he had, felt the bone this time, heard the crack, felt the sickening braking of the ax in tough tissue, and he turned and vomited. He was gagging and hacking and crying and the blood was everywhere, and still that goddamn leg was hooked on. Mario ripped away Collins’ pant leg, took the wedge he had in his pocket, pressed it up against Collins’ thigh. Strelchuk whipped off his leather belt and, using it as a tourniquet against the wedge, they stopped the heavy bleeding. Pontormo whined Italian. Strelchuk grabbed up the ax once more. His hands were greasy with blood and it was wet on his chest and face. He was afraid of missing or losing hold, and the shakes were rattling him, so he took short hacking strokes, and at last it broke off. They dragged him free. And Preacher Collins, that game old sonuvabitch, he was still praying.
I’ve quoted at such length to give a sense of Coover’s meticulousness in Origin of the Brunists. The novel is thick with life, thick with voices, mimetic detail, shapes, smells, colors, sounds. West Condon feels utterly real, making the novel’s dramatic absurdities all the more pronounced. The characters tell stories, weep and pray, bury their desires. Coover’s command of character isn’t absolute, but if his West Condoners sometimes teeter on the edge of grotesquerie they are nevertheless real, or as real as words on a page can be. More to come.
They will not do us any good—the good books—no—if by good we mean good looks, good times, good shoes; yet they still offer us salvation, for salvation does not wait for the next life, which is anyhow a vain and incautious delusion, but is to be had, if at all, only here—in this one. It is we who must do them honor by searching for our truth there, by taking their heart as our heart, by refusing to let our mind flag so that we close their covers forever, and spend our future forgetting them, denying the mind’s best moments. They extend the hand; we must grip it. Spinach never made Popeye strong sitting in the can. And the finest cookbook ever compiled put not one pot upon the stove or dish upon the table. Here, in the library that has rendered you suspect, you have made their acquaintance—some of the good books. So now that you’ve been nabbed for it, you must become their lover, their friend, their loyal ally. But that is what the rest of your life is for. Go now, break jail, and get about it.
From William H. Gass’s essay “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.
Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have stopped at a cabman’s shelter, a small coffeehouse under the Loop Line Bridge, for a cuppa and a rest on their way home. And the hope that the coffee will sober Stephen up. After an appropriate period of such hospitality, Bloom sees that it is time to leave.
James Joyce. Ulysses, (1921).
To cut a long story short Bloom, grasping the situation, was the first to rise to his feet so as not to outstay their welcome having first and foremost, being as good as his word that he would foot the bill for the occasion, taken the wise precaution to unobtrusively motion to mine host as a parting shot a scarcely perceptible sign when the others were not looking to the effect that the amount due was forthcoming, making a grand total of fourpence (the amount he deposited unobtrusively in four coppers, literally the last of the Mohicans) he having previously spotted on the printed price list for all who ran to read opposite to him in unmistakable figures, coffee ad., confectionary do, and honestly well worth twice the money once in a way, as Wetherup used to remark.
Commonplaces Narrative Events
1. to cut a long story short authorial intervention
2. grasp the situation subjective interpretation
3. rise to his feet narrative action
4. don’t outstay your welcome rationale or justification
5. first and foremost subjective evaluation
6. good as his word characterization
7. foot the bill promise, therefore a prediction
8. take the wise precaution subjective evaluation
9. mine host authorial archness
10. parting shot subjective evaluation
11. scarcely perceptible sign narrative action
12. to the effect that subjective interpretation
13. amount due is forthcoming subjective interpretation
14. grand total characterization
15. literally the last of the Mohicans authorial intervention, allusion
16. previously spotted subjective interpretation
17. all who run can read authorial intervention, allusion
18. honestly (in this context) subjective interpretation
19. well worth it subjective interpretation
20. worth twice the money subjective interpretation
21. once in a waysubjective allusion
22. as [Wetherup] used to [remark] say attribution
The sentence without its commonplaces:
To be brief, Bloom, realizing they should not stay longer, was the first to rise, and having prudently and discreetly signaled to their host that he would pay the bill, quietly left his last four pennies, a sum—most reasonable—he knew was due, having earlier seen the price of their coffee and confection clearly printed on the menu.
Bloom was the first to get up so that he might also be the first to motion (to the host) that the amount due was forthcoming.
The theme of the sentence is manners: Bloom rises so he and his companion will not have sat too long over their coffees and cake, and signals discreetly (unobtrusively is used twice) that he will pay the four pence due according to the menu. The sum, and the measure of his generosity, is a pittance.
The sentence is itself an odyssey, for Bloom and Dedalus are going home. They stop (by my count) at twenty-two commonplaces on their way. Other passages might also be considered for the list, such as “when others were not looking.” Commonplaces are the goose down of good manners. They are remarks empty of content, hence never offensive; they conceal hypocrisy in an acceptable way, because, since they have no meaning in themselves anymore they cannot be deceptive. That is, we know what they mean (“how are you?”), but they do not mean what they say (I really don’t want to know how you are). Yet they soothe and are expected. We have long forgotten that “to foot the bill,” for instance, is to pay the sum at the bottom of it, though it could mean to kick a bird in the face. Bloom, we should hope, is already well above his feet when he rises to them. The principal advantage of the commonplace is that it is supremely self-effacing. It so lacks originality that it has no source. The person who utters a commonplace—to cut a long explanation short—has shifted into neutral.
From William H. Gass’s essay “Narrative Sentences.” Collected in Life Sentences.
Between the first Sunday of September 2015 and the first Sunday of September 2016 I ran a series of posts—every Sunday that year—I called “Three Books.” I would scan the covers of the books, and I generally tried to find books with interesting design elements to them; I would also try to find a thread between the books (but not always). The posts allowed me to write about the design and aesthetics of covers, as well as other elements of the books (y’know, like, what was actually between the covers). The posts also gave me a regular goal on a Sunday. After a year, I moved on to another series of Sunday posts I called Sunday Comics; before the Three Books thing, I posted pics of my bookshelves on Sundays and wrote about that; and before that, I posted images of death masks on Sundays. A themed post of some kind every Sunday seemed to give this accursed blog a sense of direction, however false. I don’t remember how or why I quit posting Sunday comics, but searching the tag shows me I stopped at the end of June in 2017. This whole paragraph seems like a long and rambling preamble to saying something like, Maybe I should do these Blog about posts on Sundays? Huh? What do you think?
But the title said “Three Books”…so—Three Books, chosen somewhat at random:
Captain Maximus by Barry Hannah. First edition hardback by Knopf, 1985. Cover design by Fred Marcellino.
Last summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where, along with sometime-Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang, I fondly fondled a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. I couldn’t bring myself to pay sixty dollars for it, but one night, after a few drinks, broke down and bid on eBay for a signed Hannah—Captain Maximus. I wound up paying six dollars more than what Knopf wanted to charge folks for an unsigned edition back in ’85. This particular copy clearly has never been read. I ended up picking up the Penguin Contemporary Classics paperback version of Captain Maximus (for three dollars of used bookstore credit) and reading that instead. The signed Hannah’s spine is still pristine, and I realize that I am something awful.
The book is purple.
The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. English translation by Michael Kenny. First edition hardback, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968. Design by Applebaum & Curtis Inc.
The book is purple-pink.
The World within the Word by William H. Gass. Trade paperback by Basic Books. Cover design by Rick Pracher.
Just a wonderful collection of essays. His essay on Stein is required reading, and “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” is perfect metafiction posing as criticism. Lovely stuff.
The book is pink.
The great late great William H. Gass’s very big novel The Tunnel was one of four books I put on my 2018 Good Intentions Reading List that I didn’t previously own. (I did check it out from the library a few years back and download the audiobook—read by Gass himself–but I didn’t make a big dent). I ordered it from my favorite bookstore and it came in yesterday. The Tunnel is one of three Great Big Books I plan to (attempt to) read this year, including Middlemarch and some novel called War & Peace. I’ll probably start The Tunnel first.
Here are two selections from The Tunnel:
An Invocation to the Muse
O brood O muse upon my mighty subject like a holy hen upon the nest of night.
O ponder the fascism of the heart.
Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken, of let-downs local as the sofa where I copped my freshman’s feel, of failures as frequent as first love, first nights, last stands; do not warble of arms or adventurous deeds or shepherds playing on their private fifes, or of civil war or monarchies at swords; consider rather the slightly squinkered clerk, the soul which has become as shabby and soiled in its seat as worn-out underwear, a life lit like a lonely room and run like a laddered stocking.
Behold the sagging tit, the drudge-gray mopped-out cunt-corked wife, stale as yesterday’s soapy water or study the shiftless kind, seedy before any bloom, thin and mean as a weed in a walk;
Smell the grease that stands rancid in the pan like a second skin, the pan aslant on some fuel-farting stove, the stone in its corner contributing what it can to the brutal conviviality of close quarters,
Let depression like time-payments weigh you down; feel desperation and despair like dust thick in the rug and the ragged curtains, or carry puppy pee and plate-scrapings, wrapped in the colored pages of the Sunday paper, out to the loose and blowing, dog-jawed heap in the alley;
Spend your money on large cars, loud clothes, sofa-sized paintings, excursions to Hawaii, trinkets, knicknacks, fast food, golf clubs, call girls, slimming salons, booze;
Suffer shouting, heat rash, chilblains, beatings, betrayal, guilt, impotence, jail, jealousy, humiliation, VD, vermin, stink.
Sweat through a St. Louis summer and sing of that.
O muse, I cry, as loudly as I can, while still commanding a constricted scribble, hear me! help me! but my nasty echo answers: one muse for all the caterwauling you have called for! where none was in that low-life line of work before?
It’s true. I’ll need all nine for what I want to do—perhaps brand new—all nine whom Hesiod must have frigged to get his way, for he first spoke their secret names and hauled their history by the snout into his poem. For what I want to do …
Which is what—exactly? to deregulate Descartes like all the rest of the romancers? to philosophize while performing some middle-age adultery? basically enjoying your anxieties like raw lickker when it’s gotten to the belly? I know—you want to make the dull amazing, you want to Heidegger some wholesome thought, darken daytime for the TV, grind the world into a grain of Blake.
O, I deny it! On the contrary! I shall not abuse your gift. I pledge to you, if you should choose me, not to make a mere magician’s more of less, to bottle up a case of pop from a jigger of scotch. I have no wish to wine water or hand out loaves and fishes like tickets on a turkey. It is my ambition to pull a portent—not a rabbit but a raison d’être—from anything—a fish pond, top hat, fortune cookie—you just name it—a prophecy in Spengler’s fanciest manner, a prediction of a forlorn future for the world from—oh, the least thing, so long as it takes a Teutonic tone—a chewed-over, bubble-flat wad of baseball gum, say, now hard and sour in the street, with no suggestion of who the player’s picture was, impersonal despite its season in someone’s spit, like a gold tooth drawn from a Jew’s jaw.
Misfits, creeps, outcasts of every class; these are my constituents—the disappointed people—and if I could bring my fist down hard on the world they would knot together like a muscle, serve me, strike as hard as any knuckle.
Hey Kohler—hey Koh—whistle up a wind. Alone, have I the mouth for it? the sort of wind I want? Imagine me, bold Kohler, calling out for help—and to conclude, not to commence—to end, to bait, to 30, stop, leave off, to hush a bye forever … to untick tock.
Put yourself in a public place, at a banquet—one perhaps at which awards are made. Your fork is pushing crumbs about upon you plate while someone is receiving silver in a bowler’s shape amid the social warmth of clapping hands. How would you feel if at this moment a beautiful lady in a soft pink nightie should lead among the tables a handsome poodle who puddled under them, and there was a conspiracy among the rest of us not to notice? Suppose we sat quietly; our expressions did not change; we looked straight through her, herself as well as her nightie, toward the fascinating figure of the speaker; suppose, leaving, we stepped heedlessly in the pools and afterward we did not even shake our shoes. And if you gave a cry, if you warned, explained, cajoled, implored; and we regarded you then with amazement, rejected with amusement, contempt, or scorn every one of your efforts, I think you would begin to doubt your senses and your very sanity. Well, that’s the idea: with the weight of our numbers, our percentile normality, we create insanities: yours, as you progressively doubt more and more of your experience, hide it from others to avoid the shame, saying “There’s that woman and her damn dog again,” but now saying it silently, for your experience, you think, is private; and ours, as we begin to believe our own lies, and the lady and her nightie, the lady and her poodle, the lady and the poodle’s puddles, all do disappear, expunged from consciousness like a stenographer’s mistake.
–From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.
William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.
Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.
WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.
I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.
So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.
JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.
WG: Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.
From an interview with William H. Gass published in Bomb #51, Spring 1995.
RIP William H. Gass, 1924-2017
I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog). Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:
“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].
The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because I want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks. Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:
“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.
The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate. Gass (never the kind of hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.
“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.
Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:
“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:
‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”
And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point. I wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.
Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:
“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’ Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.
I could keep listing.
Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass.
Stendhal’s The Red and the Black
Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.
From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.
The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.
Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?
(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).
I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.
I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.
Why are works of art so socially important? Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. Certainly, images exist, shadows and reflections, fakes exist and hypocrites, there are counterfeits (quite real) and grand illusions – but it is simply not true for the copies are as real as their originals, that they meet all of the tests which I suggested earlier. Soybean steak, by God, is soybean steak, and a pious fraud is a fraud. Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare – rarer, let me say – than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceit, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must in itself be noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, we fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland – true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart and none of us will ever be as real as vital, as complex and living as he is – a total creature of the stage.
From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.
The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.
–From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.
I like to shuffle around my favorite used bookstore on Fridays if I have a loose hour. This afternoon, I picked up three: A first-ed. U.S. hardback Bulgakov, an Ecco-Press-imitating-Black-Sparrow-Press Paul Bowles, and a stately-but-too-stately-too-prestigish-(as-opposed-to-“prestigious”) copy of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.
I read the devastating “The Pedersen Kid,” the first novella in the In the Heart of the Heart of the Country collection of collected novellas a few years ago when I checked this book out of the library. Some helpful joker inscribed a map in this copy:
Said joker also appended three ball pen inked cursive notes to the end of the tale:
Christ / resurrection
I think I read the next story (it’s much shorter), “Mrs. Mean,” but I confess I can’t recall it right now. I do remember returning the book to the library though.
The design of the Paul Bowles Ecco Press edition of The Spider’s House kinda sorta matches the design of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Heart (Nonpareil Books, btw). I recently finished Up Above the World (after reading and being slightly-disappointed in the more-lauded debut The Sheltering Sky). I liked Up Above the World’s sinister slow-burn. My understanding is that The Spider’s House is considered superior, so we’ll see. (2017 is turning into The Year I Finally Read Paul Bowles).
Mikhail Bulgakov’s samizdat Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita has improved in my memory; reviewing my review of it a few years ago, I find that I remember it fondly, and stronger. (I wrote that it “sags at times”; I don’t remember the saggy bits, but I recall its fun effervescent evil bits).
Anyway, I couldn’t pass up on this first-edition U.S. copy (1968 Harcourt, Brace & World) of Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog (English translation by Michael Glenny, with jacket design by Applebaum & Curtis, Inc.).
I also took note of this cover for Edges, a 1980 sci-fi anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (and featuring authors like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe)—but I didn’t pick it up, mostly because I didn’t particularly have any desire to read it, even though a much younger version of me out there would’ve loved to read it. I mean, I was thinking about that younger version of me out there; maybe that version—a different version of course—will find it.